Both Alfred Laureta, the first Filipino-American to be appointed to the federal bench, and District Court senior judge Alex R. Munson played pivotal roles in the development of law in the CNMI, according to veteran lawyer William M. Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald said he has the greatest admiration, respect, and affection for former U.S. District Court for the NMI chief judges Laureta and Munson over the course of 30 years of practicing law before them.
“I want to thank you for your diligence in making decisions, the wisdom you brought to those decisions, the integrity and honesty you brought to those decisions,” said Fitzgerald in his introductory remark during last week’s unveiling of the portraits of Laureta and Munson.
The Covenant, which provided for the establishment of the U.S. District Court for the NMI, went into effect in January 1978 and it was then that the court was established. For the first nine months, the 9th Circuit rotated judges who would stay in the CNMI for a month or so.
Fitzgerald said that Laureta came to the CNMI from Hawaii where he had been a Hawaii state court judge for 10 years.
“He was the first Filipino-American to be appointed to the federal bench,” Fitzgerald said.
The lawyer said that Laureta arrived on Saipan in August 1978 and, at the time, the island was going through one of its worst rainy seasons in history.
Fitzgerald said that Laureta’s first law clerk, Howard Luke, told him they spent the first two weeks bailing out the judge’s house.
At the time, the court was located at the Intercontinental Hotel and the law clerk’s office was some 30 yards from the beach and 10 yards from the Intercontinental pool.
“The courtroom was set up at one end of a banquet room, which could be closed off from the rest and then opened when there was a jury trial,” he said.
Fitzgerald recalled that the judge’s bench was a steel desk that was fastened to a raised wooden platform about a foot off the floor.
“The air-con didn’t work very well, so they had two giant fans on either side of the bench working at full speed,” the lawyer said.
He said the rumor was that the new judge was really strict and fined people for being late for not wearing a tie.
At the time, Fitzgerald said, it was not unheard of for a lawyer to appear in court wearing zoris “and certainly nobody ever wore a tie.”
The lawyer remembered that on the morning of his first appearance before Laureta, as he pulled into the parking lot of the Intercontinental, he realized he had forgotten his tie. Fitzgerald ended up buying from a rack of novelty a tie for $10 and proceeded to the courtroom.
“The tie was hand-painted on the front and back and, while the front was bad, the back was horrendous,” he said.
Fitzgerald thought that if Laureta saw it he would be offended and fine him for that. “So remembering the fans, I made my entire argument with my hand across my stomach ala Napoleon, to prevent the fan from blowing the tie,” he said.
The lawyer said the rumors that Laureta was a tough and mean judge turned out to be ridiculous as the judge “was an evenhanded and a kind judge as one could imagine,” the lawyer said.
Fitzgerald also mentioned the variety of cases that Laureta handled.
“Judge Laureta retired in 1988 and returned to Hawaii and we are all very happy to see him once again so hale and hearty at the tender age of 89,” he said.
As for Munson, Fitzgerald recalled that Munson, a native of California, practiced law there before being appointed to the Trust Territory High Court in 1980. Munson was appointed chief judge of the district court by President Bush in 1988 and re-appointed by President Clinton in 1998.
He said Munson presided over countless Fair Labor Standard Act cases, many “ice” cases, and high-profile public corruption cases.
Fitzgerald said Munson also handled a case in Guam, when the local legislature passed a law banning abortions. “He did what judges are required to do, he followed the law and declared the Guam statute unconstitutional. The decision was affirmed by the 9th Circuit,” he said.
The lawyer said despite all the threats, newspaper articles, and letters to the editor, Munson “guided the case to a calm resolution with a minimum of drama, exemplifying the highest standards of judicial conduct,” Fitzgerald added.